in Britain during the First World War


World War One conscientious objectors


World War One - Britain

- conscription
- unwilling soldiers
- alternatives and dilemmas
- prison
- Harold Bing's story
- The story of the Harwich 
- Mark Hayler's story
- Dartmoor
- Horace Eaton's story

World War Two - Britain


''The Ideal' one of the many cartoon produced by COs'
Click image fo larger picture



There were plenty of protests against war in 1914. Some of the protesters were socialists, who believed that the working men of the world should unite, not obey orders to kill each other. Some belonged to religious groups which forbade taking human life. Some thought this particular war was wrong, some thought all war was wrong. Thousands of these varied protesters gathered in London's Trafalgar Square on August 2 to make their anti-war voices heard.

A 16-year old called Harold Bing was there. He had walked the 11 miles from Croydon (and walked back again afterwards). 'It was thrilling,' he said. Harold and his father were both pacifists (his father had opposed the Boer War as well), and they both joined the No-Conscription Fellowship. Harold helped to distribute NCF leaflets from house to house; on one occasion he was chased by a hostile householder wielding a heavy stick.

After conscription was introduced in 1916, Harold, an 'absolutist' CO, went before his tribunal. He was not thought to qualify for exemption. '18? - you're too young to have a conscience,' said the chairman. But not, apparently, too young to be sent to war. A policeman came to his home to arrest him, and he was taken to Kingston Barracks. When he refused to regard himself as a soldier, or obey military orders, he was court-martialled. The sentence: 6 months hard labour. In the end Harold spent nearly 3 years in prison.

Many COs were given what was called the 'cat and mouse' treatment: at the end of their sentences in civilian prisons, they were released, taken back to barracks, arrested again for disobeying orders, and imprisoned once more. The good thing, as Harold observed, was that each time someone was released, they had enough time before re-arrest to get hold of newspapers and information which they could then pass on covertly to fellow inmates. 'I remember there was great excitement when news of the Russian revolution came through. People thought this would make a great difference to the war.'

Harold made a difference himself. He helped to get vegetarian food provided (though unappetisingly) by the prison kitchen, and additional nourishment (a mug of cocoa) supplied for men who worked overtime. He also made friends with a few of the kinder warders - helping the daughter of one of them with her maths homework; that particular warder died soon after the war, and Harold and some other ex-prisoners set up a fund to pay for the girl's secondary education.

Harold was also one of the men who together created a prison magazine: written on thin brown sheets of toilet paper using the blunt end of a needle and the ink supplied for monthly letters home. Just the one copy ('different people writing little essays or poems or humorous remarks, sometimes little cartoons or sketches') was passed secretly from one prisoner to another. In Harold's prison this unique publication was called 'The Winchester Whisperer'.

The idea was widely copied. Wandsworth COs, for example, produced their 'Old Lags Hansard', once with an apology for late publication 'owing to an official raid on our offices', the editor's cell. A work camp attached to a stone-breaking quarry published 'The Granite Echo', with copies printed by a supporter in London.

Harold Bing left prison with his sight damaged by years of stitching mailbags in dim light, but also having taught himself German and French. He wanted to teach, but he quickly found that many advertisements for teachers said 'No CO need apply'. 'And if you did apply, you got turned down as soon as they knew you were a pacifist.' But at last he found a sympathetic headmaster who was willing to employ him. As well as teaching, Harold worked as a peace campaigner (often travelling abroad) for the rest of his life. He died in 1975.  continue....







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